by Jochen Markhorst
Well, I woke up in the morning There’s frogs inside my socks Your mama, she’s a-hidin’ Inside the icebox Your daddy walks in wearin’ A Napoleon Bonaparte mask Then you ask why I don’t live here Honey, do you have to ask?
In The Joker (Tod Phillips, 2019), contrary to what the film title suggests, it is definitely not a prank. It is – quite literally – a chilling scene, the scene where Arthur hides in the fridge. Arthur Fleck, after a long, despondent succession of rejections and humiliations, has just had to endure the ultimate, final rejection. In the luxurious washroom of a fancy establishment, he confronts the man he thinks is his father, Thomas Wayne (indeed, the father of Bruce, the later Batman). Wayne denies – quite believably – that he ever impregnated his former maid, Arthur’s mother, punches the slightly hysterical Arthur in the face with his fist, and the painful scene ends with Arthur alone, bent over the sink.
The opening of the next scene mirrors the closing of the previous one: Arthur is standing in his kitchen bent over the sink. Then, as the phone rings, he suddenly rips open the fridge door, pulls out all the shelves and drawers and hides in the fridge. It is, especially after his previous tirade against Thomas Wayne, an action dripping with symbolism;
Arthur: “I don’t know why everyone is so rude, and I don’t know why you are. I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little bit of warmth, maybe a hug, DAD! How about just a little bit of fucking decency! What is it with you people!?”
But after the violent rejection, the Joker has no hope for decency, or a little bit of warmth. He opens the fridge door and retreats into darkness and cold. His final, irreversible descent into madness starts here.
For the time being, the protagonist of Dylan’s “On The Road Again” is spared that fate. But his in-laws seem intent on at least trying to drive him to insanity. It starts as soon as he gets up, with a corny, rustic Tom Sawyer-like prank, with frogs in his socks. Then his mother-in-law jumps out of the fridge and, as an encore, his father-in-law, who has apparently just seen the classic Napoleon Bunny-Part (Friz Freleng, 1956) with Bugs Bunny on morning TV (“Hey Pierre, here’s another Napoleon”), makes his entrance as a patient with the stereotypical Napoleon Delusion.
II Benny Hill?
Well, I go to pet your monkey I get a face full of claws I ask who’s in the fireplace And you tell me Santa Claus The milkman comes in He’s wearing a derby hat Then you ask why I don’t live here Honey, how come you have to ask me that?
In this household, an unfriendly pet monkey doesn’t really surprise, but it remains awkward. And it opens a side door to a gradual derailment of the already bizarre morning scene. It becomes grotesque. The protagonist is unpleasantly surprised by the presence of a man “in the fireplace”. With a different run-up, say one like in “Gates Of Eden” or “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, a metaphorical interpretation would be obvious – and not too enigmatic either. In the hearth there are usually ashes, burnt remains, so figuratively, the narrator asks about the past of his interlocutor, something like that. A question like Arthur Fleck’s question to his alleged father.
But the answer (“Santa Claus”) and the immediately following scene, the entrance of the milkman with a derby hat, push the colour and atmosphere of the song in another direction; towards a 1950s screwball comedy. A milkman in a derby hat? Benny Hill? Dylan has just been in England, was even in the BBC studios in early May ’64, so who knows. Maybe he did indeed have a look and an involuntary chuckle at the saucy postcard humour, the adolescent puns and sexist double-entendres of the British phenomenon.
The song thus takes a turn for the spicy, corny regions. In the 50s and 60s, the role of the archetypal “milkman” is carved in stone: the secret lover of the adulterous woman, the man who turns every husband into a cuckold. This is not only true for The Benny Hill Show, but equally in the Playboy cartoons, on the funny papers of every newspaper and in every sketch show. It’s a twist to the farcical that Dylan only decides to do during the recording, by the way. In the very first take, there is no milkman to be seen, and the bard sings at that spot in the song:
The room is so cold I got to wear my hat
… with which the gateway to a more “serious”, metaphorical interpretation of his words is much more open; after those remains in the fireplace, a “cold room” also has a similar symbolic meaning, similar again to the Joker scene in the toilet room – the cold room where Arthur complains about the lack of human warmth.
The clichéd metaphor does not survive first take, the only take of this song on that packed first session day for Bringing It All Back Home (Wednesday 13 January 1965 – Dylan and band record first attempts of twelve songs). The next day, the singing poet scraps that “heavier” cold room image, in favour of the much more light-hearted milkman-with-bulb hat.
It is an intervention that also affects the charge of “Santa Claus”. In the same Playboy cartoons and funny pages of the fifties and sixties, Santa Claus is often assigned the less than honourable side-line function of love competitor. More often in the ultimately innocent oh-la-la variant in which Santa Claus turns out to be the legal spouse (the “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” variant), but oh-la-la it remains.
All in all, the poet now suggests that his girlfriend has joined his in-laws in the pursuit of making a fool out of the I-person. Actually, only the stereotypes “postman” and “butler” are missing to complete the picture of a classic 1950s TV comedy.
To be continued. Next up: On The Road Again part II: The shitting Pope
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
You can read more about all our regular writers here
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